A version of this article originally appeared in Search Engine Watch on January 26, 2012.
Farhad Manjoo, the resident tech writer at Slate, has long been a favorite of mine. He writes with a unique clarity and seems to grok the way consumers think and how companies should market to them to achieve mainstream success. With his recent article on the Google + changes in the SERPs he’s done it again. He makes a number of cogent points about Google’s melding of social results in the search results, but I want to focus on a few specifics here, with the goal of calling out a broader point.
Manjoo cites an example Matt Cutts, Head of Google’s Webspam team, mentioned where the presentation of personal results in the SERPs supposedly ‘work’.
On his blog, Matt Cutts, who heads Google’s Webspam team, points out how his query for general tso’s chicken is improved by social links. He follows Jennifer 8. Lee, the author of a book about Chinese restaurants, on Google+. When he searches for general tso’s, he gets a link to Lee’s definitive Quora post on the history of the dish. If you don’t follow Lee and you do the same search, you won’t get that post.
But I don’t see the logic here. Isn’t the Quora post a good result for general tso’s chicken whether or not you’re friends with Lee? And the reason it’s a good result is that she’s an expert on the topic, not that she’s your friend or colleague. If Lee’s post isn’t coming up for all Google searchers‐rather than just the ones who are perceptive enough to follow her‐it would seem to suggest something is amiss with Google’s algorithm. You shouldn’t have to friend a plumber in order to find a good link about unclogging your toilet.
In the aftermath of the announcement the industry has been (understandably) primarily focused on the anti-trust implications of Google’s promoting their social network in the search engine with the largest market share. That left a question—one that Manjoo raises with his article– largely unasked.
Anti-trust implications aside, are searchers, in fact, better off for having personalized results in their search results? As Manjoo states, the reason we turn to a search engine is to get the collective view of all Web users, and that has worked particularly well until now. “Not once”, he says “did I get to a Google results page and lament that I couldn’t see my friends’ ideas about the car I should buy or the hotel I ought to book.”
The question becomes even more significant when we consider that search is a zero-sum game: whatever personalized results Google is showing me is taking real estate away from the collective view of all web users I am after.
You can turn off personalized results at the top of the search results page but it is on by default, the icon is not clearly labeled and would not pass the ‘would my mother know what it’s for, much less take action to use it’ test? And, in what seems to be a particularly devious way of driving additional personalized searches, the toggle is session specific: once it is turned off, personalized search turns back on the very next search.
One has to wonder if the decision to meld personal results in the SERPs is another in a lengthy history of Google decisions that, in practice ‘tested well’, but falls down on a faulty core assumption that escaped notice because it is not immediately testable. Google Wave might test well in the lab, but what is the reason a consumer would need an online collaboration tool? Navigation test scores in the lab may have been high for SERPs with social results, but is anything in fact being added to the searcher experience by adding personalized results?
SERP Clutter Increases Searcher Anxiety
The recent Google changes have additional unintended consequences for users of the search engine. My instinct is to describe the problem as a SERP that has become far too busy, but that limits the problem to one of ‘busy’ versus ‘not busy’, when in reality it is greater than that.
Making decisions is hard. The more options available to us the more challenging it becomes. While it is a concept that is inherently intuitive, there is real science behind it. Psychologist Barry Schwartz writes about it in The Paradox of Choice—Why More is Less where he draws on his research to demonstrate how consumer anxiety is created by too much choice.
“…[consumers] constantly being asked to make choices, even about the simplest things, forces us to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, and dread.”
His research shows that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. This is a concept that translates well to human information retrieval of all kinds.
And, there’s this research covered in MIT’s Technology Review on dating sites where “users presented with too many choices experience cognitive overload and make poorer decisions as a result.”
In adding personalized results to the SERPs, Google is adding yet another clickable item outside of the core search results that the searcher is forced to make a decision about–this one in prime real estate at the top of the search page. This is on top of the social options that already appear at the right side of the page for logged-in users and the bloated sidebar that runs down the left side of the page. Today, not counting core search results, there are no less than 15 ‘click’ or ‘don’t click’ decisions the searcher has to make on Google’s SERPs. With more than 26 Billion searches taking place every month, certainly a non-trivial percentage are from mainstream, non-techie users and Google continues to take them (take us all?) down a path of choice anxiety.
Google has achieved such success in search–to the point that 7 out of 10 web searches are made today on their search engine–because in the early days of the web, their results were far more relevant than alternatives, but also because they stayed out of the way of the searcher and did not create choice anxiety. I’d argue that searchers are still really looking for that. Give me the information that I am looking for so I can get in and get out. Today, more and more it feels like Google is tripping over itself, increasingly getting in the way of my getting information from my search engine and getting out.
How Do We Find Ourselves Here?
One has to wonder how Google could have made such decisions—where questionably relevant Google + results are littered in the search results and the tried and true simplistic user interface that brought them $3.7 Billion this past year in revenue has become something a bloated eyesore with social cues all over the page. How could they have ended up in a place where Farhad Manjoo, one of the most respected minds in tech journalism who, in my years of reading him, has proven to be a largely impartial and non-sensationalist in his headline writing describes the changes as, ‘Google just broke its search engine’?
Avoiding Pressure from the Street, but Blinded to Pressure from Within
The answer, ironically, can be found in analyzing the way Google handled its IPO. They went to great lengths to IPO in such a way that stockholders would not control enough voting stock where pressure from the Street would begin to bleed into product decisions. Yet, that is exactly the situation they find themselves in – only the pressure comes from within, in the form of a fledgling social network that, at the direction of the CEO is a win-at-all-costs proposition. By famously tying personal compensation to the success of social, the situation we find ourselves in today became all but predictable.
The end result is that decisions are being made to promote the social network in a manner that impacts Google’s core search business that generates $3.7B in annual revenue and finances everything from self-driving cars to the Google cafeteria. (By latest count search advertising is responsible for about 97% of Google’s annual revenue.)
Google Approaches Uncharted Territories
So what does all this mean for Google? There have been numerous instances in the past where users have been up in arms about the latest Google change, insisting they were moving on to other search engines. Panda, while painful for many publishers ultimately proved itself to improve search results relevancy. Google Instant and Preview brought with them cries of “SEO is Dead!” and vows to move on to greener pastures. All the while the needle hasn’t budged on Google’s market share.
But what makes this time different is this is the first time the credibility of their core search results are being called into question. There’s no question that social is an important part of how online users will consume and spread quality content. But it has to be integrated in a manner that does not degrade core search functionality, or worse, sully searcher trust in what is still the most utilized search engine in the world. Because this, more than anything Google’s core competitors can do to them, could prove itself to be the tossed pebble that brings the mighty giant to its knees.